Monday, April 1, 2013

Honorary Degrees: Neither Honorary, Nor Degrees


Getting a PhD is hard work! Of course, I don’t personally know this, as I am not getting one, but I know people who are either working on it, or have one already. You are basically a slave for the school, working your butt off, doing research, taking classes, writing papers, etc. And all the while, you are pretty much broke. Yes, some programs will pay you (a few grand per year), but others don’t.

So the fact that some schools just hand them out blows my mind. It seems insulting to the people who have actually earned them, and it seems insulting to the people who are receiving them. It also makes the school look bad, I think. Imagine if the Olympics gave out honorary gold medals, or the Nobel Prize committee gave out honorary peace prizes? It would be the most ridiculous thing you could ever imagine.

The first time I heard about some sort of honorary degree was when I was in film school. I went to Vancouver Film School (VFS), and I learned that the writer/director/actor, Kevin Smith also had attended years earlier. However, he dropped out, took his refunded tuition money and shot the movie Clerks.  Well, after he became famous, VFS decided to award him an honorary diploma. To me, the whole thing seemed like a transparent attempt to associate themselves with a successful filmmaker—to attach his name to theirs.

Now, one might be tempted to say “sure, in that case, VFS clearly just wanted to associate themselves with Smith, but many schools just give them to past alumni who have accomplished great things.” That sounds superficially plausible, but upon further inspection, it seems to be even worse. First, why give people honorary degrees if they already have accomplished so much? How could that possibly benefit the person? The late paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science, Stephen Jay Gould was one of the most influential and popular science writers of his generation. He taught at Harvard, worked at the American Museum of Natural History, and had a stunning scientific career—having published 479 scientific, peer-reviewed papers and written 22 books. Gould was also awarded 44 honorary degrees from academic institutions around the world. I have to ask, what is the point? Are his career accomplishments not enough? Is it reasonable to conclude that these universities thought “this Gould guy is pretty good… let’s honor him”? No. Obviously, he was a celebrity scientist and universities wanted to associate themselves with him in any way possible.

Likewise, Hollywood celebrities often receive honorary degrees for nothing more than being famous. Heck, even Kermit the frog has an honorary PhD from SUNY Stony-Brook. It seems that such gratuitous hand outs of degrees only water down the importance of PhDs, and make the university appear to not value the hard work it takes for its actual doctoral students to obtain one.

The most embarrassing examples of giving out an honorary PhD I have ever had the misfortune of seeing was at Colorado College (the institution I work for). What makes it so embarrassing is that unlike other schools that give honorary PhDs, Colorado College does not have any PhD programs. Not one. They have a Master’s degree program—for education, and that’s it. It’s shameful, and it’s the only thing that makes me embarrassed about Colorado College.

Now, you might be thinking “okay, sure. I get that all this is silly and seems disrespectful to people who work hard for their PhDs. But it’s just a piece of paper… a symbol of respect from the school or something. It’s not like anyone actually says they are a doctor as a result of getting an honorary PhD.”

While I suspect that that is the case most of the time, unfortunately, there are a group of people who do use honorary degrees in an attempt to make themselves seem academically accomplished, and give what they say credence. Those people are creationists. To anyone who follows that stuff, it’s not surprising. Creationism is a world where logic is cherry-picked and academic honesty doesn’t matter. Creationists have no qualms with getting honorary degrees or degrees from diploma mills if that means they can put "PhD" on their resume and refer to themselves as a doctor. They will use any tactic, no matter how low, to try and appear to have a modicum of academic accomplishment. So the argument that honorary degrees aren’t used for anything bad is no good either.

Of course, it should be noted that not all schools resort to such levels of sucking up. MIT, UCLA, Cornell, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Rice, the University of Virginia and the California Institute of Technology refuse to give out honorary degrees. UCLA actually gives out a “UCLA Medal” instead, which seems like a much better decision.

In the end, Universities, which should be bastions of academic honesty, rigor and transparency, end up looking like middle school girls with low self esteem. They want to be associated with the cool kids, with the hopes that other people will perceive them as being cool too. Schools should be judged on a variety of things, such as how well they educate students, the experience they give students, and the quality of work their students produce once graduating… not on whom they are desperately trying to associate themselves with.